Space needs, economy, taxes hot topics at forum

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Candidates tackle education and health care problems at forum

Space needs in St. Albert’s schools and health care facilities were on voters minds on Monday night.

That’s what many in the crowd at Monday night’s all-candidates forum, hosted by the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce, wanted to know from the 10 candidates who attended the event at St. Albert Inn & Suites.

Nearly all of the candidates running in the two St. Albert ridings – St. Albert, and Spruce Grove-St. Albert – were on hand for the forum. Only Brendon Greene, who is running for the Green Party in Spruce Grove-St. Albert, was absent.

But PC candidates Stephen Khan and Rus Matichuk, Liberal candidates Bill Alton and Reg Lukasik, NDP candidates Marie Renaud and Trevor Horne, Wildrose candidates Shelley Biermanski and Jaye Walter and Alberta Party candidates Trevor Love and Gary Hanna all spent their evenings giving the packed room of a few hundred people their pitch and fielding questions submitted to moderators by the audience.

With so many candidates on hand, the questions were boiled down to common themes and delivered by theme for each candidate to respond.

Overtaxed health care

When the candidates were asked how their party plans to deal with the inadequate number of inpatient beds at the overtaxed Sturgeon Community hospital, a wide range of solutions were presented.

Khan and Matichuk highlighted promised continuous care and supportive living beds from the PC government coming to help alleviate the strain.

“Those beds will be delivered shortly,” Khan said.

Liberal candidate Lukasik said there’s a need to get people out of the hospital and into long-term care, while fellow Grit Alton questioned if any beds were added in recent money spent at the Sturgeon.

Wildroser Shelley Biermanski spoke of the need to add home care, and to stop people from dropping seniors off at the hospital so that their entry into seniors’ facilities is fast-tracked.

“We need to definitely change that as well,” Biermanski said. Wildrose colleague Walter promised the Wildrose plan could start to fix the health care system in a timely fashion.

The NDP and Alberta Party candidates highlighted inefficiencies in the system and a need to talk to front line staff.

“The first thing we need to do is depoliticize this,” said NDP candidate Renaud, citing politics in health care decision-making. Her fellow NDP candidate Horne said the NDP has pledged more beds, and said there’s a lot of hospital square footage going unused in Alberta.

Love told a story about his wife giving birth at the Sturgeon at 8 p.m. and being asked to leave by 3 a.m. because the bed was needed.

Hanna noted the flip-flops between centralized and localized health care management, and pointed to a lack of infrastructure planning. He told the crowd if the needed hospitals aren’t built soon, the “senior tsunami” will hit hard.

School space crunch

Another question asked what can be done to address the issue of 400 new students expected in just the St. Albert Public Schools district this fall, but with no additional growth funding being provided in the 2015 provincial budget.

Hanna, a teacher, was first up to bat.

“I see this every day when I go to work. I see teachers coming home crying because they cannot facilitate the 45 students in their classes … it’s ridiculous,” he said, again highlighting the need for more infrastructure.

Incumbent St. Albert MLA Khan said he’d been working on this very issue this weekend, telling the crowd he’d spoken to Education Minister Gordon Dirks about whether St. Albert Public Schools could use their reserve fund.

Biermanski used the opportunity to highlight that boards should be deciding on schools, and not the education minister.

“Our government doesn’t have a tax problem, it has a spending problem,” she said.

The NDP and Liberal candidates promised, in varying degrees, to stop cuts or increase school funds.

Liberal Alton said if there’s a need for a special education tax, that should be considered, saying he watches in alarm as the funds aren’t provided for Alberta’s children.

“We should stop being afraid of tax as the ultimate devil. What is the ultimate devil is the collapse of the way we live,” Alton said.

Renaud called the lack of growth funding a cut.

“We’re going to stop the cuts to school,” she said of the NDP.

Alberta Party’s Love noted the candidates had largely reverted to talking points, and said he wanted to actually answer the question.

“The truth is nothing. We don’t have the space, we don’t have the space coming for this fall, so we’re going to struggle … these schools needed to be built years ago,” Love said.

Taxes and economy

Other questions lobbed to the candidates were about diversifying the economy and whether or not they were personally for an additional sales tax.

No one outright stated that they were pro-sales tax, though some alternative tax schemes or cuts were suggested.

Tory candidate Matichuk noted his background in innovation, and said his party wants to diversify in all sectors, especially agriculture, innovation, technology and the environment.

“I believe that clean technologies and environmental technologies have a serious and significant place in our future,” Matichuk said.

Other parties’ candidates took different views, from Love suggesting a need for investing in education to set students up for the jobs of tomorrow to Walter saying Wildrose ensuring low taxes will help stimulate business.

“As long as we are consistent, business will continue to invest in Alberta and employ thousands,” Walter said.

Lukasik questioned whether the Alberta tax advantage is really working, pointing to aviation positions leaving the province for B.C.

Community improvement, finales

The candidates were asked to describe their contributions to the community outside the political arena, which highlighted everything from extensive volunteer experiences to enthusiasm for gardening.

Finally, the candidates were given a chance to rebut before the conclusion of the event, though most chose to instead highlight their or their parties’ beliefs and encourage people to vote.

Alton, going last, thanked the hundreds of people still there for sticking out the entire forum.

“I still hear a passion for the kind of change we all want,” Alton said.

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